OXFORD — New University of Mississippi Athletic Director Ross Bjork spoke with a steady and steely resolve, detailing every step on how he planned to lead the Rebels in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference.
“I like to have fun, but I’m serious,” Bjork said Thursday. “I take this very seriously.”
His new job will be a challenge. The 39-year-old Dodge City, Kan., native is charged with building an Ole Miss athletic program that just finished arguably its worst football season in school history and is in the midst of a $150 million capital campaign to build a new basketball arena and to upgrade the football facilities.
Bjork was introduced at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, completing a quick rise through the collegiate ranks to a job in one of the most demanding conferences in the country.
Bjork said the passion at Ole Miss is one reason he decided to take the job.
“This is the Southeastern Conference,” Bjork said. “We want to be competitive. We want to compete for and win championships in the best athletic conference in the country — bar none.”
He comes to Ole Miss after two years as the athletic director at Western Kentucky. He also has worked in the athletic departments at UCLA, Miami and Missouri, where he earned a reputation as a prodigious fund raiser.
Ole Miss has an annual athletic budget of about $50 million, which ranks near the bottom of the SEC.
“I just want to be at a place that cares about athletics,” Bjork said. “Western Kentucky cares about athletics. Ole Miss cares about athletics. Those are the places you want to work at.”
Bjork was hired by Ole Miss Chancellor Dr. Dan Jones and a committee that was led by former Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning and FedEx chairman Mike Glenn.
Jones said Bjork inherits an athletic department that is positioned for success because of recent facility upgrades and passionate fan base.
“It’s not often you talk about the youngest athletic director for a BCS school in the country and say that his experience separated him from the other candidates,” Jones said. “But he had relevant experience for our needs at Ole Miss. He had experience at good places and in a breadth of the parts of running an athletic department.”
Bjork has several decisions that he’ll be involved with during his first few weeks on the job, including hiring a new women’s basketball coach and a new track and field coach. He also must make a decision on men’s basketball coach Andy Kennedy’s future. Kennedy has won more than 20 games per year in six seasons at Ole Miss, but hasn’t led the Rebels to the NCAA tournament.
Bjork also will work with new football coach Hugh Freeze, who was hired in December after former coach Houston Nutt was fired following a 2-10 season, including 0-8 mark in the SEC.
Bjork wasn’t afraid to make bold moves during his two seasons as athletic director at Western Kentucky. He fired men’s basketball coach Ken McDonald midseason after a 5-11 start and replaced him with Ray Harper, who later became the permanent coach as the Hilltoppers went on to make a run to the NCAA tournament.
Bjork said he was just starting to get acclimated to all of Ole Miss’ issues, and his decisions would be based on what was best for the university.
“Expectations will be to represent Ole Miss every single day,” Bjork said. “The logo — it never comes off. Whether we’re downtown, whether we’re getting out of our car, whether we’re working, the logo never comes off.”
Bjork replaces Pete Boone, who is retiring in April after more than 13 years as Mississippi’s AD.
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